Bend the Knee by Ed Davis
Maggie felt like she was back in her grandmother’s church in Kentucky: the satin-draped lectern at the front, the framed paintings of Jesus, the red indoor/outdoor carpet, the hard pine pews. She smiled back at the shriveled man in a baggy polyester suit who greeted her as soon as she entered Bear Branch Primitive Baptist Church. He didn’t hand her a typed bulletin, as the greeter at Holy Blood in Dayton would’ve; nor did he hug her like the deacons in Grandma’s church would’ve. Instead he took her right hand between his two warm ones that might’ve milked cows that morning. Held within his bluish age-freckled fingers, hers became bread dough for kneading.
“Bless you, honey. We’re so glad you’re here. We ain’t got much, but you’re welcome to what we have.”
He finally released her, and she quickly sat on the next-to-last row, surprised to find herself so calm. She didn’t feel nearly as self-conscious as she would have in almost any place of worship in the city. If these folks were looking at her, they were doing it discreetly.
Commanding a panoramic view of the small sanctuary, she observed families with three or four stair-step children, bookended by a mother and father on one end, an elderly woman on the other: the surviving widowed grandmother, with a hand on the head, arm or shoulder of the smallest child. Rather than funereal, the silence felt rich, expectant—even a bit thrilling—at the same time it felt as if time had completely stopped, like sitting inside history.
And where was Latham? She realized that, in her haste to get here on time, she hadn’t bothered to notice if his truck had been parked in front of his house when she drove past. Uncomfortably, she admitted that she wanted her employer to be present on the day she took the step she was contemplating; she wasn’t sure her resolve would hold if she waited until next Sunday.
She was cheered when a blonde woman sitting in the middle turned and waved. She waved back before realizing it was Sophie Thomas. She hoped her new friend would be glad to see Maggie had taken her advice. While she still wasn’t completely sure that joining the church would help her to be accepted in this community, she’d convinced herself to at least show up and see how it felt. (So far, so good.)
Latham’s voice boomed from the doorway behind her, and before she could react, he was walking down the aisle holding Lily’s hand. They moved so slowly his unbalanced gait was nearly invisible—in fact, she seldom noticed, but today she did and her heart swelled with sympathy for him, his losses. A widower at thirty-two with a six-year-old child to raise—she still had trouble believing he’d chosen her, an outsider, to tutor the girl, troubled as she was. Maggie felt herself lifting off the hard pew to join her adoptive family until something stopped her, and she eased herself back down. In such close proximity to them, she might feel pressure. She’d make her decision alone.
During the singing, she lapsed into a dreamy state as she followed the simple melody, half-singing the words full of pious sentiments. She tried her best to relax and surrender to wherever the spirit led, as Grandma Margaret would’ve said. Was joining the congregation in order to gain the community’s acceptance wrong? She felt Grandma would’ve understood—maybe even approved. But by the time the collection plates were passed, a tiny headache had embered to life, throbbing at her temples. When the pastor rose and began to speak, she steeled herself.
“Lord, we seek not to ever beseech you without reason, to neither ask for favors nor for gifts nor things we have no need of and no business asking for ourselves—and, oh my father, it will not be the easy thing but the hard thing we need you for. For our sinful pride won’t allow us to bend the knee, to let go of our will and be your son or daughter in Christ.”
Then, to Maggie’s astonishment, his voice lapsed into singsong, giving Maggie a little shiver at her shoulders.
“O-oh, take the pride. O-oh, hush the devil’s tongue at our ear, the desire to forsake God for Satan. O-oh, my sweet Lord—”
Bend the knee. It’s what stuck to the walls of Maggie’s mind in the lay preacher’s melodic sermon-song. It was hypnotic, overwhelming her senses, and she found her defense—I’m only doing this to fit in—crumbling. While the kindly preacher smiled and stared straight at her, she felt as if the tiny room held no one but the two of them. Her body was tingling, her knees jumpy and liquid at the same time.
“O-oh, come now, daughter; come now, son,” he chanted. “Come and be saved by the one living, almighty Jesus, Lord of Lords, Bridegroom of God, almighty maker—”
In the end, her body overruled her mind and down the aisle she floated. At the altar, she knelt at the feet of the red-faced man whose name she had not even heard. But this was not Holy Blood—no one had told her to kneel. And yet she found her temples no longer throbbing, her face cool. Bend the knee. It felt like the right thing to do. Clenching her eyes closed, she focused on what lay behind her eyelids. Halfway expecting some holy image—Jesus, maybe, or the Holy Mother—she instead saw light sparkling on water, felt a gentle breeze on her face and a figure making its way slowly down a steep bank above a creek. The altar, the congregation, the man standing above her fell away. As if watching a movie, her senses narrowed to all but the images unspooling before her inner eye . . .
Down the steep bank eight-year-old Margaret steps carefully, walking sideways in the slippery sandals her mother insists she wear in summer. Mama thinks she is in her room, lying under the bed where she hides after her mother has called her hardheaded. Not today. Today she decided it was time to go down to the water, so she climbed down the sugar maple outside her window and walked through the gate at the back of their yard.
The water is a glittering ribbon. Swirling brown sludge only a few days ago, the mud has settled. She sees stars in it now, blinking in the dappled light from trees on the other side.
She is following the path that seemed much easier back when she first discovered it last October after sneaking out of the yard, knowing they wouldn’t approve. At one point the bushy trees and shrubs lock limbs to form a thick canopy above her. More than once, she slips, the bank muddy from storms early in the week, but she gets up and continues.
Halfway down, she quits watching her feet, and, stopping, glances up. Below, the creek gleams in late-afternoon light. She smiles in spite of the burning in her eyes and at the back of her throat. She pants, although she’s far from exerting herself. (She can out-run every boy in third grade without breathing very hard.) The water is a glittering ribbon. Swirling brown sludge only a few days ago, the mud has settled. She sees stars in it now, blinking in the dappled light from trees on the other side. She continues, slowly.
At the bottom of the bank, there’s no path, only more tangle to get through. The first time she’d come—afraid that she’d tear her new dress on stickers—she’d almost fainted when, right beside her in the thicket there’d been a sudden flapping and a monster rose and flew. After she regained her breath, she realized it was a huge bird. Later, at the library she’d found a photograph in the nature book of the great blue heron.
She knows her parents won’t approve of what she does down here on the bank. It will be one more tomboy thing her mother will fuss at her for, like the stuff she brings home and hides in the cedar chest her father gave her: feathers, shells, bones and rocks. Climbing a tree is dangerous . . . dirty . . . disgusting. But she doesn’t care. She’s here now, and he is waiting, his big arms outstretched. She loves his rough, peeling, brownish-white bark, his beautiful shape. Up she climbs, loving the gritty feel against her skin. Her hands, arms and legs have memorized how to move her quickly to the highest branches.
Within moments, she’s made it as far as she can go and looks down. Glitter erased by shadow, the water has become a black, lapping beast. She slides down a bit, finding herself cradled between two branches.
She pats both limbs simultaneously. The tree will never let her fall; he has waited a long time, has been as lonely as she was before she found him. She sometimes cries when she is here, because of things Mama says to her, and she always feels better when she’s in his branches. Although Margaret has seen other children get whippings, her parents never hit her. Instead, Mama fusses. And that’s what causes the burning that only the sight of the water and touch of the tall tree’s skin can extinguish.
“Margaret Grace. Are you down here?”
She shimmies down so fast, she scrapes her knee, swinging off the lowest branch to land a few feet away from where Mama stands, hands on hips.
“What in the world are you doing down here, girl? And what have you done to your knee?”
Looking down, Margaret sees the blood oozing down her calf, almost to her sandal. She scratched it getting down so fast. Mama will fuss if it stains her white shoe, so she wipes the blood with her fingers. Lunging forward, her mother grabs her arm and yanks her backward. “You’re hurting me!” Margaret cries.
“You had your father and me worried to death, girl! How did you get outside without us seeing you?”
Before Margaret can speak, the truth blooms in her mother’s eyes: the sugar maple beside her bedroom window. Mama tightens her mouth and stares up into the big tree’s branches where Margaret has just been and shakes her head.
“Mercy, girl, you could’ve broke your neck.” Her mother shades her eyes to look deeper into the towering branches. “You’ve come here before, haven’t you? Tell me why, Margaret.”
“He helps me.”
“’He?’ A tree is not a he.”
“This one is. He’s my friend.”
“No, a tree is a thing. It’s blasphemy to call it ‘he.’ That’s a word for living, human—”
“He loves me more than you do!” She jumps back, out of range of her mother’s hand. “Don’t hit me!”
For a while—only seconds but it seems forever—her mother becomes a statue, mouth open and eyes shooting needles. Then, slowly, her face changes. She looks sad—and very old.
And then the vision disappeared. As Maggie rose from the rough carpet, the world crashed back in.
When Lily clasped her, Maggie let the girl hug her waist while she kissed the top of the girl’s head, her hair smelling like wood smoke. Latham, standing behind his daughter, was speaking.
“. . . good thing you’ve done today, Margaret. God is smiling.” He lowered his voice. “And your daddy in Heaven is shouting ‘Hallelujah!’”
She accepted his calloused hand. His approval should’ve pleased her, but it didn’t. Rather, she found herself in a strange state of surrender, but was it to the Holy Spirit or the natural world? Was there a difference? Weren’t they both God? Her vision, epiphany—whatever it was—had reconnected her to perhaps her most religious memory. Her mother and the sacred tree: had any experience in her life been closer to her soul than that? The upwelling joy in her abdomen was almost pain.
It was Sophie Thomas, approaching, arms open wide. Then the big woman halted, dropped her hands to her hips and locked eyes with Maggie like a doctor examining for cataracts.
“Lord-a-mercy, girl, you look like you seen a ghost.”
It woke her further, and she grinned. “Maybe I have.”
Then with a whoop, Sophie gathered her in, and for several good, long moments Maggie found herself warmed by the talcum-sweet softness of the woman’s wool cape and herbal scent. The large woman’s embrace felt like Grandma Margaret and Mama in one big package. Closing her eyes this time, Maggie saw nothing but blessed darkness.
When Sophie released her at last, Maggie opened her mouth but before she could speak, a heavy-set, grandmotherly woman stepped up. “Come, Sister, let’s get you ready for the water.”
Instantly she beheld in her mind’s eye the glittering stream rushing at the bottom of the bank below the yard where she’d once lived. Apparently the Spirit was still moving. With a backward wave, Maggie left well wishers behind. The water awaited.
“I’m Brightie Owens,” the woman said, “and here’s your robe. You can change in the women’s right there. I’ll wait out here so’s nobody comes in on you. Hurry up now. They’re all a-waitin’.”
Maggie changed into the coarse white cotton gown, leaving on socks and underwear. She was beginning to feel a bit dazed, but she was surprised at how unafraid she was. She felt so present (although even as she said it to herself, the experience was already fleeing). After the ceremony they’d go home, she would cook and they’d eat dinner. Afterward, she’d escape to her cabin. (Alone, she might be able to re-enter the vision she’d had at the preacher’s feet and understand more—why her mother had been so afraid of the world).
Once they were outside, Maggie realized Brightie was leading her down to the creek. A creek baptism on a mild October afternoon: Grandma Margaret would’ve been in her glory! Stepping forward, feet bound by the straps of the sandals she’d thankfully kept on her feet, Maggie saw the congregants’ backs. It looked like everyone had stayed—no doubt it was sacrilege to leave, regardless of how hungry you were. Maggie marveled at how intense everything looked, the leaves of sugar maples and sycamores gleaming like ossified sunshine.
The preacher was already in the water up to his knees with his sleeves rolled up. As soon as he saw her, his face broke into a smile, and he beckoned with both hands. She slipped and fell to one knee (bend your knee). Rising, she saw she’d cut herself on a rock and blood ran down her calf. Standing painfully, she felt the first glimmer of fear; and, beneath it, anger. Something about her earlier vision was coming clear: Mama had denied her daughter access to the natural world, and forever after she’d sought comfort in harder places (her father’s religion had been too tame to quell her fears). Today proved she could find what she needed herself.
Straightening, she spread her legs and planted her feet, ignoring the blood running down her leg, staining the robe’s hem. Lifting her chin, she raised her eyes and walked forward. She not only felt the living congregation of Bear Branch Baptist, but behind them, all their dead. History collapsed to this moment. Something gave way in her chest, fear and anger fluttered away, and it was as if her forebears had ordained this event in some far-ago time and place before she was born. The moment, the time, was bigger than Mama and Daddy, bigger than Grandma Margaret, Latham and Lily. It was the whole world, the same one that had given her so much trouble. Now it waited on her.
With no more thoughts of fainting or stumbling, she stepped forward into water above her shoes, chilly but not freezing, imagining Jesus wading out to the Baptizer while the evangelist’s stunned disciples watched. Now she was in the preacher’s iron grip, his right hand held high, his left gripping the small of her back. The cords of his long neck were taut. Sun shot wildly off the face of his watch, destroying time.
“In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”
And she was under, immersed in darkness. One heartbeat . . . two . . . Then strong arms lifted her, gasping, into the roaring light.